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For much of Nadav Lapid’s newest feature, Synonyms, the film’s protagonist, Yoav, vacillates between man and body. An Israeli military veteran running from his homeland to start anew in Paris, Yoav, played by Tom Mercier, desperately wishes to redefine himself as a Frenchman. He obsessively pours through the French dictionary, learning and relearning words, phrases, synonyms in an attempt to translate his identity into French. 

When Yoav is taken in by Emile and Caro, a young, affluent French couple, viewers see him standing in front of a dresser, attempting to dress himself after all of his belongings had been stolen the night before. From off camera, clothes fly into his hands, presumably from Emile, as if  Yoav’s new persona were being spirited into existence. Emile, a writer, becomes enraptured by his guest. Yoav gladly regales the couple with stories of his time in the military, reveling in his ability to reform his life into French, as if the words and connotations could change the character of his history. He draws poetry out of the violence he experienced, recounting how he would fire his machine gun during drills to the beat of music, “playing” his firearm.

Yet, despite this constant, feverish effort to reinvent himself, Yoav’s body is regularly on display, representing both a tool honed for violence and a part of himself that cannot be reskinned. When Emile and Caro first encounter Yoav,  they find him asleep and naked in the bathtub of a vacant apartment after his clothes had been stolen. Later in the film, after losing his job as a security officer, Yoav models nude for an erotic photographer. His musculature, his stunted movements, and his erratic temper betray a base aggression that refused to be lost in Yoav’s translation. Mercier plays Yoav with a quiet intensity, as if viewers were watching a man capable of erupting at any moment. His thoughts, his reactions, his actions are ever so slightly delayed, as if every word spoken to him must be processed and translated before receiving a response.

Lapid, who based Yoav partially on himself, offers an indictment of both Yoav and Israeli culture itself – that Yoav, and several other IDF veterans who emigrate to France, have violence and ego ingrained in their blood. Lapid’s camera, which remains still when Yoav interacts with his French companions, reverts to frenzied handheld shots as Yoav walks the streets of Paris, alone with his thoughts. He is compulsive, drilling new French words and their synonyms into his head, leaning on brute force to erase his identity as an Israeli once and for all. He keeps his head down, out of frame, as if occupying a less-than-conscious state, his brain in a sort of fight-or-flight delirium.

Viewers never learn why Yoav fled Israel or what he necessarily finds so alluring about France. Lapid paints a picture of a young man trying to run from himself, escaping through language. Allusions to Troy’s Hector crop up throughout the film, but unlike Hector, Yoav is resolved to keep running through sheer force of will. By the film’s close, viewers find a Yoav whose values have been compromised. The rules he set for his transformation have been sidestepped, and all he can cling to is the brute force that he loathes in himself.

Indeed, while this portrait of Yoav is particularly vivid and engaging, Lapid’s vision of France seems at least as superficial as Yoav’s. Emile and Caro exist in Yoav’s orbit, idle, rich and drawn to the mystery and excitement of Yoav’s past life. To Emile, a stagnating author, Yoav is an inspiration, and to Caro, Yoav is a sexual conquest. Each meanders through Yoav’s life, appearing when Yoav needs to be pushed forward through the film’s narrative, and falling away just as easily. Their appearance reads like a directorial indulgence and little else.

Nonetheless, Synonyms offers a deeply intimate and personal look at how identity and language interact and interweave. Lapid’s film, though self-indulgent at times, is remarkably self-critical as well, holding his protagonist and, by extension, himself to task for their innate toxicity. In one particular comic scene, Yoav attends a naturalization seminar and, when asked to sing the French anthem, requests that the music volume be dialed up as he proudly belts out the lyrics to the other students in the classroom. The anthem is in French, not the Hebrew Yoav once recited while in the IDF, but Yoav’s fanaticism remains unchanged.